What Exactly Is Water Based Ink in Screen Printing?

multi color ink billowing in water

Water-based inks, also known as softlays, are the more inexpensive alternative to solvent inks. They are used for simpler designs and less color since water-based inks are only available in a small range of colors. The typical ink is made with a pigment and a non-ionic surfactant dissolved into distilled water.

Water-Based Ink

Water-based inks are a general term for various non-solvent-based ink types. The type traditionally used in screen printing is lacquer water-based, although there are other types such as contact printing and matte inks.

Lacquer is any water-based ink that is not clear. Lacquer, along with matte and emulsion, is one of the most popular screen printing inks. Because of its opaque nature, it’s the type of ink used for most logos and other graphics. Some brands like to print special effects or different color schemes on solid surfaces, where they would need to use lacquer or another similar ink. Non-solvent-based inks can be made in much less solvent than traditional solvent-based. Because they’re not mixed with a chemical, they are more environmentally friendly and less expensive.

Typical Uses

Water-based inks are not used for inkjet printing. They are mainly used in silk screen printing. They have specific uses, just like other types of ink and colors. Lacquer water-based inks are commonly used on dark and light-colored shirts and light-colored plastic surfaces. It allows the printer to create a bright final product with the right colors. This ink is also printed on water and oil-based surfaces, such as glass and metal. The ink is ideal for printing with various screens; some inks are explicitly made for halftone screens.

This ink dries within minutes and can be easily washed out of the screen. They work better on dark-colored shirts and other substrates because they are not as bright as traditional inks. Water-based inks also work better with mesh counts that are above 180. They tend to be more expensive than solvent inks, but they are also more environmentally friendly and safer to use.


The primary water-based ink comprises a pigment and a non-ionic surfactant dissolved into distilled water. Added additives such as resin and glycol give the ink different properties such as color and viscosity, which depend on the pigment used. The most important part of the formula is the color. Pigments are added to help create specific colors. Different pigments are used, such as silica, titanium dioxide, and carbon black, as well as other ingredients such as oxides and metal salts. The surfactant used in the formula is a non-ionic surface-active agent that acts as a diluent and emulsifier.

Non-Ionic Surfactants

Surfactants fall into two categories: non-ionic and ionic. Non-ionic surfactants are referred to as “emulsifiers.” They don’t break down in the presence of water, usually because they contain little or no ionic charge.

Non-ionic surfactants do not dissolve ions. However, they form micelles in solution, making the oil-in-water emulsion more stable. They are also known to be milder and more gentle than anionic surfactants.

Ionic surfactants break down in the water, causing them to lose efficacy. These surfactants are known as “detergents” or “sudsers.” They are strong enough to bind with an ion, forming a complex that breaks down the surfactant. The resulting ink is usually known as “sudsing” ink.

Surfactants Categorized By Function

The two main groups for surfactants are anionic and non-ionic. Each type of surfactant serves a different purpose. Anionic surfactants are made up of both organic and inorganic compounds. Organic compounds can be natural or synthetic, while inorganic compounds are usually salts or acids.

Lacquer water-based ink is a non-solvent-based ink used for printing on various substrates, including metal and glass. It also has some unique qualities, such as being quick drying and very easy to wash out. This type of ink is used to create solid color designs, where the color does not need to be as bright as solvent-based inks.

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